As nicoleandmaggie sometimes say, this is a deliberately controversial post.  The topic comes up because I volunteered to host the next iteration of an online writing group, and I want that group to be helpful for me, as well as for participants.

These online groups are coming up on their second anniversary: we started in May 2011, and continued that fall.  I always liked the basic principle of Another Damned Notorious Writing Group: you were committing to completing a single piece of writing in a twelve-week period.  Notorious said, “Make it a single project, and make it something you believe you can reasonably complete, given the other demands on your time during the semester.”

Over time, the groups have evolved.  A lot of them have expanded to 15 weeks.  People have felt more free to comment on each other’s posts, offering advice, congratulations, and commiseration, whereas I think in the early groups, we tended to wait for pats on the head from our fearless leaders.  I’m neutral on time periods, and in favor of interaction.

But there are a couple of tendencies I’m not happy with.  One is that we’re getting laundry lists of stuff to do from some people, including items related to teaching or taxes.  “Overcome By Events” happens.  We don’t need all the details.  If you need a place to make general lists, then register for an account at the Chron and start posting at Paralysis Analysis.

This listy tendency may have grown from the fact that some of us, including me, have multiple writing projects going on simultaneously, and some of these are large enough to be impossible to complete in 12 or 15 weeks.  So I get that.  But I’d still like to keep the focus on writing/research.  And it would still be good to break down goals to “produce 1000 polished lines of translation” or “one chapter” rather than “keep on with translating” or “write book.”

The other thing making me unhappy is other people’s unhappiness.  It seems as if there’s a lot of venting taking place at writing group that might better go on individual blogs.  The writing group is supposed to support you in the process of getting work done, not help you understand why work is so hard or analyze the reasons for writing block.

So if you’re happy with things as they are, then maybe there should be multiple groups, with different rules.  Maybe I’ll find myself all alone over here.  Maybe you’ll all jump on me in the comments.  Anyway:

I would like to host a group of committed professional writers—or amateurs serious about their craft—who want to complete a single piece of writing between May and August 2013.  The group will provide public accountability and acknowledgement of interim goals met.  That’s all.

Any takers?

55 thoughts on “Writing Group Therapy

  1. I am guilty of moaning and groaning. And I appreciate this post. Do count me in for May to August because I am committed to serious writing.
    Cheers 🙂

  2. Mmm. Sounds good: accountability, acknowledgment, no whining. I’m not an academic, but I do have a research/writing project that clearly needs a system of accountability and a deadline. Am I in?

  3. Dame Eleanor, please count me in. I am looking forward to clearing my plate this summer to focus solely on the book project that has been spinning its own circles on the periphery for too long. I would welcome a place where I can be accountable and not too terribly much more.

  4. Dame Eleanor, I’m in, too. The book ms. will be out the door by then and I have a conference paper that I need to write in that May to August period.

  5. I understand your distinction and appreciate it. This isn’t therapy, this is writing discipline.

    There’s one article I’m planning to start in May and finish for August – I’d like to join the writing group to help me work on that despite all the other distractions.

  6. I’m in: no whining, no whinging, just writing and lots of it.

    It’s going to be a pretty messy spring-summer for me writing-wise, with lots of small things to finish off; but the big task will be to find some kind of structure for my new project. So: detailed book plan by August.

    (Identity crisis on a Sunday morning: there’s already a “zabeel” on wordpress. Makes me feel so … derivative.)

  7. I think it’s a great idea, and wish I could join you, but my research right now isn’t a good fit! (I’m going to spend the summer scrambling with several non-writing deadlines.)

  8. I’m looking forward to joining this next iteration of the writing group! It worked beautifully for me last fall, and then I took the winter off because I knew my various obligations wouldn’t let me make progress on writing (and I was right about that!), but this summer I’m back in! In the fall I finished a chapter draft for a book project, and my goal for the summer is to finish the second chapter.

    And yes, I’m with you: whinging and non-writing-related lists are for individual blogs.

  9. Could I join in? I have a project on which I do want to complete this summer. I appreciate your distinction.

  10. I see your point but my work patterns don’t fit this sort of writing group at the moment, both because of the way I work as a writer and because of the nature of life as a STEM academic in a middling university. Committing to a single piece is a luxury I don’t have, especially in the summer! And pure public accountability is too much like the endless forms of accountability I already have to have with people at work to meet my needs. But I’ll continue to read, because I always learn neat stuff!

    So I’m out; hopefully back in the Autumn, if anyone hosts. “Therapeutic venting” can happen over at my place if anyone wants that, as an addition to this writing group or as an alternative to it. I will continue to post lists of things I must do (because whilst I’ve lost many notebooks and pieces of paper and even computer files, I’ve yet to lose my blog!) and grumbles and requests for tips and suggestions over there, and would be willing to commit to a sort of weekly round-up post for comments/chatter/OBE in parallel with the writing group if anyone else would be interested.

  11. OK, it sounds like that’s at least an even dozen of us, counting me. I still have to figure out which of my projects takes center stage this summer. JaneB, I will myself be working on at least two things, but only one will be the “main event.” I like the idea of a round-up post chez toi, if you’re willing to do it. I’m in a frame of mind that just wants to hunker down and finish something.

    I’ll do another post after the official end of the current writing group. I don’t want to start the next one till after Kalamazoo (the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, if you’re not familiar with this shorthand), around mid-May. And I’m thinking of trying a Monday announcement of plans for the week, rather than weekend check-ins. So maybe Monday, 13 May as a starting point.

    More to come.

  12. Can i get back to you about this? I would definitely be free by mid May, but I am not quite sure what direction anything is going at this point.

  13. I’d be glad to participate again, as the earlier group was very helpful in providing an impetus to meet a milestone each week. A tight focus would also help me with commenting – I didn’t have time for long comments last time round anyway.

  14. I’m a tentative yes at the moment. If the next five or six weeks go well, I may be done with the dissertation draft before or just after the writing group starts. If I’m slower than I want to be, I’d love to join in.

    1. It looks like I’ll be working on revisions and formatting over the summer and defending in September, so count me in!

  15. Quick, non-controversial answer: I’m in, and can work within the stated boundaries to make progress on one project — an article already in progress — that really does need to be finished within the relevant time-frame. There may be a few weeks where the goal is “work on another project” or perhaps “expect to be OBE” (in which E most likely = summer teaching, which falls midsummer this year).

    Longer, more controversial answer: I’m a bit concerned with the idea of defining a “professional” exchange in such a way as to rule out mention not only of the personal, but also of the structural issues that plague academia, and academics, these days, and their effects on our writing/research lives. Job uncertainty, side jobs, various sorts of financial juggling /uncertainty/worry (for which “taxes” are something of a shorthand for me at the moment), etc., etc. are part and parcel of the larger picture for the majority of Ph.D.s working in the academy these days. Tenure, though it’s hardly a panacea, and brings pressures of its own, does bring a certain degree of protection from such concerns (at least in departments that aren’t actively under threat of being eliminated, restructured, etc.). However, it seems extremely likely that the majority of Ph.D.s and ABDs who don’t currently have tenure never will, even if we continue to work in the academy. We’re trying to figure out how to fit research and writing (and setting priorities, both for which projects we pursue, and for when we pursue research and writing vs. other activities, professional or otherwise) in a new, and rapidly-changing landscape, and I’m not sure it’s realistic, or helpful, for us to try to set aside the context.

    Or, to put it another way: I’d hate for writing group discussions to mirror a phenomenon I’ve noticed at conferences: TT and non-TT faculty mix well as long as we’re talking only about our research, but things tend to get uncomfortable, and at least the more privileged TT faculty tend to get tense, or drift away, once the structural obstacles faced by non-TT faculty (and job searchers) come up. I’ve now had three conversations with an undergraduate mentor (since chair of a department at another university) whom I admire very much, and am always glad to see, and chat with, at conferences, that took a strange direction when I started a sentence with “Well, I’m in a full-time non-TT position,” as a preface to explaining some barrier or at least mild impediment to the research I’ve been describing, or even to saying that I’m trying to use the research to prepare for a job search. In each case, the mentor has jumped in mid-sentence with “oh, yes; my department created a number of such jobs when I was chair; aren’t they a great alternative to using adjuncts?,” which of course derails what I was about to say entirely. This isn’t her usual conversational style, and I don’t think she’s aware that she’s doing it (though I do think she’s beginning to realize that our conversations tend to end strangely), but, at this point, it’s a clear pattern (and one that keeps me from getting advice that might be useful: for instance, what does her department look for in a mid-career hire? But perhaps that, too, would be awkward, because the honest answer would be “someone who has tenure elsewhere, or is married to someone we really want to hire, or at least has kept up a publication pace equal to that of our TT professors”). I’m not sure what to do about it; in fact, I’ll probably continue to employ the solution I have so far: steer the conversation back to her work (which is in a fairly different subfield than mine, so I learn something, and she’s not really a potential reference at this point; the connection is as much personal as professional). But it’s one among a number of conference episodes that makes me aware of how we construct the “professional,” and how it can, at times, serve to cut off discussion of larger context (or at least isolate such discussions to panels attended almost entirely by people on the less-privileged side of the structural divide).

    For that reason, I like JaneB’s idea of a parallel discussion, and will be interested to see what develops in each space. I *can* see the value of compartmentalizing writing and research from the larger job/financial context — I do that, often for months at a time. I’m also aware that, in my present situation, doing that for too long can be dangerous to my long-term professional/financial health (and so, ultimately, to my writing and research; if I end up working 9-5 50 weeks a year in a job that makes use of my writing/research skills, but has nothing to do with my own research interests — an alternative I may well decide within the next few years that I should pursue — then progress on my currently-planned projects is going to be very, very slow, if it happens at all).

    1. Well said regarding the dichotomous experiences of the already-tenured and the most-likely-never-to-be-tenured.

      I’d like to add my controversial two cents to respond to the idea that “The writing group is supposed to support you in the process of getting work done, not help you understand why work is so hard or analyze the reasons for writing block.” I tend to view understanding the process of writing, including analyzing writers’ block in order to overcome it, while juggling all the other aspects of academia (whatever stage you’re in), as actually supporting the process of writing. I’ve also thought that people can chime in as much or as little as they want, using the group as a place for whinging or for accountability, whatever needed.

      That being said, the host gets to set up the writing group however they want and to ask participants to stick to that setup and I’m looking forward to the next version.

    2. that’s one reason why I left. I have the inequality conversation all the time. Sometimes one needs a writing group that was about writing and not about academic divide. It just created an even worse space for me mentally, especially when there is such a focus on PhD contingent faculty. Some of us have MAs and the same struggles, and are treated even worse by some ABDs and PhDs. That doesn’t invalidate the need for people to have these conversations about academic privilege at all. But I just wanted to deal with writing in a writing group and not all the academic baggage.

      1. “Sometimes one needs a writing group that was about writing and not about academic divide.”

        YES. This is part of why I am addicted to the Mayhew blog — it is *not* about suffering, just about the work. I find this very therapeutic.

  16. I am somewhat frustrated by this post, partly because I feel rather “called out” by it. I mentioned taxes in last week’s writing group comment, so I guess this is directed at me (among others). When I wrote “do taxes!”, I thought of it as a timely joke (perhaps just for Americans, granted), an afterthought, never really thinking that I was violating parameters of the group.

    Also, I was surprised by this part of the post: “The other thing making me unhappy is other people’s unhappiness. It seems as if there’s a lot of venting taking place at writing group that might better go on individual blogs. The writing group is supposed to support you in the process of getting work done, not help you understand why work is so hard or analyze the reasons for writing block.” I found this surprising because, in the fall iteration of the group that was hosted here, we were presented with weekly themes such as “self-punishment” and others that addressed obstacles to productivity. These themes seem directly related to why the work is so hard, and they seem to encourage “venting,” of sorts. Or maybe I am missing some fine but important distinctions.

    Either way, since I feel called out, I will not ask to opt in. I have found these groups very helpful as I write my dissertation, and I appreciate the hosting that has happened here and elsewhere. I have improved my writing habits because of these groups. And while I think the criteria for the summer group are perfectly reasonable, I am bothered by some of the implied judgments in the post itself. I am judged on my professionalism plenty in my life. I don’t need another space for that.

    That said, Thank you, DEH, for allowing me to be part of the group in the past, and I hope you have a productive group this summer.

    1. I confess that I was a little surprised by this, just like you, because of the weekly themes in the last group. I liked that idea and meant to continue that for our group. Perhaps it went too far, in which case I apologize. I also don’t think DEH meant it as a personal attack, since she confessed to being guilty of it, too, and once had “buy an adapter” or something like that on her list, but taxes were probably fresh on her mind since it was timely – it’s tax day today (in the U.S.) after all! You certainly weren’t breaking any parameters of the group at all. Please do stick around for the summer with JaneB. We’ll all still be here for you, if not as a strict accountability writing group, then as a commiserate/celebrate writing group!

  17. When I say “I’m unhappy,” what I mean is, “I am unhappy.” Not “you suck,” not “you whiners,” not singling anyone out. Re-read the post. I was not the one who first used the word “whine,” and I think the first commenter who did meant it in a good-humored spirit. I was speaking of general tendencies that have been pretty widespread in this group. If anyone finds that the shoe fits, well, then you decide what to do with said shoe. One option is to join the group and post about your progress.

    I am not unsympathetic; if anything, it’s the reverse. Reading about other people’s troubles makes me feel like they are happening to me. And when I feel like a lot of people’s troubles are all happening to me, I don’t work well. The point of a writing group is to get work done; if it’s having the opposite effect, then something is wrong.

      1. I get the point about negative self-talk, and can certainly see that there was some of that in the spring group. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between negative self-talk and acknowledgement of contextual/structural barriers (which can also go too far, but can’t be entirely ignored; it’s a delicate balance).

  18. My May-August title is “The Darker Side of Mestizaje: Three Tropical Texts”
    and I have a very good abstract of 386 words. It’s also to be broken up into two different conference papers for October but the goal is to have the article submitted by August. If I break into conference papers as well before the semester starts, that is all to the good.

  19. Re contexts and so on: I understand about them, and it is why I did not join a writing group when I knew I was not in a position to write. And note, in the fall I was using the writing group for research time accountability: I did not write anything but notes, but the group was great for getting me to do that reliably.

    However I disagree about intermingling contexts and the work. The work is the space where you do not have to think about the rest of life. It’s a respite. I figured this out during my exams — I had other things going on and I did them, just not during my study time or meditation time or rest time. I wrote my dissertation that way, when I had, first, a fellowship that required me to take courses in another field and when I was living in a foreign country and trying to figure it out: dissertation time was rest time. I survived an awful assistant professor position that way: writing time was time not thinking about all the c*** that was going on.

    I really understand not getting a lot done while being a VAP or similar. The entire situation is so unstable, it is hard to concentrate. Very. But I did find that the same advice applies: you block out 15 hours a week or whatever you can, perhaps much less, and allow yourself to just be the writer during that time.

    1. I agree; this attitude can work at times (and has worked very well for me at some times in my life). However, the other side of the coin is to make sure that “the work” doesn’t become solely an escape, particularly an escape based on a fantasy that one is pursuing some sort of career/professional track that does not, in fact, exist (or is so narrow that only a few people can proceed along it at a time). One does need to be clear about *why* one is pursuing research and writing, particularly if one is setting aside other possibly-important activities or goals to carve out whatver block of time one chooses to devote to it. There’s nothing wrong with research/writing as a hobby, but if it *is* a hobby, those of us who pursue it in that context probably need to call it that, and not “work” or “professional activity” (even if we have professional training in the area, and so can’t exactly be called amateurs — obviously the language gets very complicated when one is describing a possibly-vanishing, or at least drastically shrinking, profession, with new aspirants still being trained in numbers far exceeding the available jobs that actually involve the activities that are at the center of their training).

      On the other hand, perhaps acknowledging that, even for those for whom research and writing can legitimately be described as “work” (i.e. they’re at least indirectly compensated for it), at least one reason for pursuing such activities is that they feel more like play — a respite from less rewarding or refreshing compensated activities — might create some common ground among those with jobs that involve research, and those without. The real trick, I think, is not to prioritize research/writing on the argument that it is work, or will lead to work, when in fact it is play, and shows every sign of continuing to be just that, and no more (but also no less).

  20. I’d appreciate you hosting the writing group again and would love to join in. Does this mean that you no longer want to have an “analysis” section to our updates? I do find it useful to have a kind of record of what actually caused a disruption– it’s good to see what the pattern is– but do you really wish not to see analyses for writers block in the updates..? (if so, then yes, we could do that on our own blogs/diaries…)

    1. I always intended “analysis” to mean “what worked, what didn’t” about the scheduling or other practical elements of getting writing done. For instance, does it turn out to be impossible to write at 6:00 a.m. even though that sounded good when you planned it, or do you realize that having an hour in the library, in the middle of a teaching day, rejuvenates you and makes the rest of the day better. That sort of reflection.

      But in order to do the kind of cognitive restructuring nicoleandmaggie are talking about (and what a good term for it; I wish I’d had that in the original post), the “analysis” section may be one of the things that disappears in this iteration of the writing group. If we don’t start till mid-May, there’s some time to think about it.

      1. Hmm, I see. A “what worked” section would actually be nice– I’d be interested in being able to do a quick read-over of others’ successful strategies. And having a space for something more open-ended, even if “positive and brief,” would serve the purpose of letting us get a sense of the other participants as people too.

        Anyhow, experimentation is good, and nothing’s set in stone. Try something out and there will always be the next writing group to try another way.

      2. I seem to remember an earlier iteration of the “analysis section” being something like “what one thing can you change this next week to help you accomplish your goal.” I found it quite helpful to think about positive change.

  21. I think the analysis and the topics worked when DEH was doing it but I have been frustrated by writing group this time and for same reasons as DEH. I think group needs to be led by one person and that person has to be experienced enough to really have perspective on these matters.

    There is a big difference between discussing difficulties and starting a downward spiral. Part of the reason for my own downward spiral in professordom was having to deal with so many colleagues who were other assistant professors and who believed in wallowing in pain. I even remember being called heartless because I was taking care of myself healthwise, i.e. eating-sleeping-exercise, and my clothes were ironed and the house was clean.

    One can have very uncertain and disempowering situations and need to figure out how to navigate them. One need not be complicit in them and what I have found is that many are, sometimes because the rut is easier, but more interestingly because it is hard to see outside the ideological box that says, you should be doing well and if not it is that you are not worthy. These are both forms of complicity and one must resist them by deciding one is powerful. This is of course much harder to do as an adjunct, etc., or as a graduate student who hasn’t published a lot yet, but it is *paramount* to place oneself at the center of one’s work and not let it get invaded by internalized evaluators, one’s supervisor, etc., too soon.

    End of rant but it was what I dreamed about last night. Adjuncts it is not true that anything you say can get you fired in a heartbeat (I hate that phrase, in a heartbeat, but everyone else seems to love it, so I am using it) — the university adores and needs you. Just because you may have a dissertation director or a department chair that treats you like a worm, you do not have to crawl like one. Sorry to be so blunt but the behavior of some junior types around my real department, crawling like worms half the time and pontificating like the Pope the other half, is really destructive, especially to the other junior types. Have some solidarity willya and not in the form of a club where you depress each other further, is what I want to say to some people I know now, some I have known in the past, and some I have seen on the Internet.

    1. P.S. later in day, I am still thinking about it. I cannot emphasize enough how destructive it was to my career to be lectured by graduate students, contingent faculty and new assistant professors about how difficult everything had to be, how the contexts made it so hard to write, how life had to take over, and so on. I fortunately escaped a lot of this during dissertation period because I was abroad in a country where people do not think in this way, and I was horrified upon my return to US 18 months later to find my grad school cohort still stuck on prospectuses and embroiled in university whatnot. Eventually they got to me — “but you have to suffer!” — they cried. I do not recommend this to anyone and what was always good for me, still is, is to hang out with functional people doing functional things even if they are more “privileged” than I.

      These are yet more reasons why I do not want the writing group to be a space for dumping emotional junk. I was in a dissertation group in graduate school where there were strict time and space based rules on this: there was the part of the meeting that could be for social or therapeutic or whatever kind of discussion, but another part to discuss work where only work was discussed, no food was allowed, etc. — it was great. On my rules water, coffee, and nursing babies were allowed in this part of the group but nothing and nobody else but us and work.

      1. P.P.S and I will finally shut up. I know we are oppressed by the powers which are, the Governor, the patriarchy and so on but the way to work against that is, first of all, is not to submit. Walking over to the library I was thinking about this, about being tall. I was thinking about how the evil administrators and those who most suffer under them are in fact in league with each other, in a way. You have to resist and have some pride, for chrissake.

        Anyway, I will now shut up for real. I think people who really believe it is impossible should quit, and I point out that every adjunct who puts up with adjunct working conditions is enabling the incredible b.s. that goes on. I am so tired of being the only one willing to stand up to the president, the only one wiling to walk a picket line, etc., and of having people complain to me about how they cannot work but remain unwilling to stand up for themselves in public, I have lost patience today.

      2. Z, there’s something about your comment about “being tall” that just captures the essence of your argument for me. I come from a position of academic privilege, but even so there are days (especially the last few weeks) when I’ve felt increasingly bowed down under the burden of things going on around campus. Your comment was exactly what I needed to shake it off, stand tall, and think more constructively and with pride. Thanks!

  22. I don’t think I’ll be able to join over the summer – I do have a solid chunk of writing I intend to do, but I’ll be traveling a good deal, so it will be done in fits and spurts with weeks off here and there. I deeply appreciate your suggestions for the summer iteration, though, and will read along as often as I can. Loving nicoleandmaggie’s cognitive restructuring idea. I found the tone and structure of last fall’s writing group to be extraordinarily helpful – perhaps it was just the right thing at the right moment for me, but I’m still very grateful for that. Thanks for your influence!

  23. Well, I think I would like to do this over the summer. I will complete the introduction to a journal issue in mid-late May (I hope) but then will head to England where I *must* write an essay that is due in September. I have to figure out it’s shape, do research, and get it written. A good, focused task. There will be other things, but that’s the main one.

  24. On my phone so won’t say all I want to but some of this covers why I had to stop with writing group. Also I felt so much like it was all about academics/academic writing and I just didn’t belong there. I don’t want to read advice on dissertations etc. where there are so many other places online that that gets talked about. I wanted a place to check in, feel accountable and maybe ask a few writing questions.

    As long as I don’t have to 1) finish my book (life right now makes that too lofty a goal. Not that I’d complain if it did happen.) and 2) that non academic writers could “belong”. The first online group I did, you hosted DEH, and topics focused on writing–the work and the craft. I liked that. I’m not a professional in terms of making money. I do know how much I want to get written this summer and what project it is that needs that focus.

    1. I meant professional in terms of attitude, not money. Writing not as a hoop to jump through, but something that you make central in your life and about which you can be analytical as well as creative. From what I know of you, you certainly qualify, if you want to give the summer group a shot.

      1. Thank you. I could definitely use the accountability. Writing is pretty central to my life. Now I just need to decide what the summer goal will be. (I’m still recovering from the fact that it’s nearly May. When did this happen?)

      2. “Writing not as a hoop to jump through, but something that you make central in your life and about which you can be analytical as well as creative.”

        YES. The hoop to jump through attitude is deathly to everything. I never understood it.

  25. I’m curious — I’ve used a paid service (Academic Ladder) for things like a writing group before. I’m a long time lurker on blogs… And I’d like to try a cheaper version of a writing group for accountability over the summer — I’d have one big writing project (an article) and two smaller ones (a grant revision and a protocol manual) to try to accomplish in that timeframe. Would a newbie be welcome. The system Dame Eleanor describes fits what I’d like… (I can get a blog reorganized if its useful.)

  26. I’d like to join and can commit to one single writing project, but since I’ll talk to my supervisor at the end of June my goals will be split into two time periods within the four months frame. Would that be alright?

  27. I’d like to participate in the summer group. I’m still trying to figure out a realistic writing plan for the summer, but keeping the goal simple / focused on one piece will probably work best for me in any case.

    As with most of the weekly topics in the groups so far, this post and the comments have me thinking, but not quite able/ready to comment on the issue myself.

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